53 pages 1 hour read

Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Leaving Time, the 2014 novel by Jodi Picoult, is the story of a young girl’s search for her missing mother. When Jenna Metcalf was 3 years old, her mother, Alice, went missing under mysterious circumstances. Jenna’s parents run an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire.

One night, an employee’s body is found trampled by an elephant. Jenna’s mother is taken to the hospital with a head injury, possibly caused by the same elephant, but checks herself out and disappears that night. She’s never seen again. Jenna remains convinced her mother isn’t dead.

With the help of a washed-up detective named Virgil and a psychic named Serenity, who’s lost her connection to the beyond, Jenna sets out to find Alice.

The trio stumbles across clues that direct them to the other people involved in the tragedy. They find a pebble necklace at the scene of the accident, which they then take to Jenna’s father, hoping it will jog his memory. Thomas Metcalf suffers from manic depression and is confined to a mental institution. When he sees Jenna wearing the necklace, he reacts violently.

Virgil suspects that Thomas lashed out because his wife, Alice, may have been having an affair with a sanctuary worker named Gideon. Jenna tracks Gideon to another elephant preserve in Tennessee, where he confesses to the affair. The romance is complicated by the fact that Gideon’s wife, Grace, and his mother-in-law, Nevvie, also work at the sanctuary. When Grace finds out about the affair, she commits suicide.

To make matters worse, Alice is expecting Gideon’s baby. They plan to run away together with Jenna. When Gideon tells his mother-in-law that he is going to leave with Alice, she says she hopes he gets everything he deserves.

Jenna now believes her mother may be dead and asks Serenity to try to contact her. They go back to the spot in the elephant sanctuary that held special meaning for Alice. Serenity fakes a vision, believing this will give Jenna some closure. Nothing happens, but Serenity comes across a tooth lodged in the dirt. This is a fresh piece of evidence.

When Virgil, Serenity, and Jenna take the tooth for DNA analysis, the trio learns that it belonged to a child under the age of 5. In that moment, Jenna remembers exactly what happened on the night of the accident.

Nevvie leads Jenna out into the sanctuary grounds and kills her by smashing her head with a rock. Seeking revenge for the loss of her own daughter, Nevvie deprives Alice of hers. Alice arrives too late. Seeing what’s happened, she attacks Nevvie. They struggle, and Alice receives a blow to the head, blacking out. When she revives, Nevvie is dead, and Jenna’s body is missing.

Fearing that she’ll be accused of murder, Alice flees back to Africa. One of the sanctuary elephants drags Jenna’s body away and covers it with dirt. Jenna realizes that she is actually dead. Knowing that she’s a ghost, Jenna can let go and move on to the spirit dimension. Virgil also realizes that he’s a ghost. He always believed that he botched his suicide attempt after failing to solve Alice’s disappearance. In reality, he succeeded in killing himself and has been trapped ever since. Now that the case is solved, he can also move on to the spirit realm.

Serenity learns that she hasn’t lost her psychic gift. She’s been speaking to ghosts all along but thought they were real. She contacts the police, shows them the tooth, and leads them to the place where it was found. Jenna’s remains are discovered nearby.

Alice gets a call in Africa notifying her that Jenna’s body has been found. She returns to the US for her daughter’s burial. Serenity contacts her, claiming to have spoken to Jenna. At first, Alice doesn’t believe the psychic, but Serenity knows all sorts of facts about Jenna that are impossible to explain. Jenna’s spirit manifests in a mirror, in order to reassure Alice that she isn’t to blame for Jenna’s death. This gives Alice closure, and she, too, can now let go and move on.